More pixels aren’t always better!

Week of September 3, 2006

Q: We’ll be spending 15 days on the Hawaiian Islands next month, and would like to have a reliable digital camera with us. Right now we have a 3 year old Minolta DiMage S414 with 4.0 megapixels. This is our 1st digital camera and we have been happy with it. However, lately it doesn’t seem to hold a battery charge long at all. We just purchased new rechargeable AA batteries and used them with our old chargers, and still that hasn’t helped.

You recommended the Kodak P880 in the column, but we were hoping to not have to spend $500. Can we purchase a good digital for $250 to $300? We would like to come home from our vacation (celebrating 50 years of marriage) with some excellent quality pictures.

-Sally and Ron James, Bellevue, PA

A: Before I answer your question, congratulations on 50 years of marriage!

I would not give up on your DiMage S414 just yet. It was an excellent camera in its day and is still capable of top-notch performance. In fact, many of the newer cameras with more megapixels do not produce image quality equal to the 4 megapixel models of a few years ago. More on that later.

Unless your camera has a short, which would probably lead to other problems besides quick battery drain, there is no reason the batteries should not work well unless they are not receiving a full charge for some reason. I suspect there may be some kind of incompatibility between your new batteries and your chargers.

First, try a set of lithium AA batteries in your camera and see what kind of life you get from them. Lithiums are single-use batteries that are well suited for digital cameras, unlike alkalines, which will die very quickly.   The lithium AAs should last for several hundred photographs without flash. If they give you satisfactory life, replace the rechargeables with a new set (preferably two sets) and a matching charger. The Energizers are a good choice and come packaged with chargers at attractive prices. Look for the 2500 MaH versions of the AA batteries. The MaH rating refers to stored power. The higher the number the more power the batteries can hold.

Many manufacturers are adding more pixels for the sake of marketing, and more is not always better, especially for a small camera. Small cameras use tiny sensors and when you increase the pixels, the pixels become smaller so they can all fit on the chip. Smaller means they collect less light, so the camera must amplify the sensor signal electronically. This causes defects in the picture called noise and artifacts.

A prime example of this is the latest Panasonic cameras. Readers may remember that a year ago I strongly recommended the Panasonic DMC-FZ20 and DMC-FZ5 cameras, both 5 megapixel ultra zoom models. The models that replaced them, which have 8 megapixels and 6 megapixels respectively, do not perform as well and I no longer recommend them. They should have stuck with 5 megapixels and worked on improving image quality, instead of cramming on more pixels for marketing purposes.

If you need a new camera, check out Canon’s PowerShot A700. It features an excellent quality 6.0 megapixel sensor, has a full range of manual controls and is available for under $250. Tests have shown its photo quality to be outstanding, with no serious noise issues.

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